Ford has come up with a prototype vehicle seat that can monitor a driver’s heart activity, a device that could one day reduce the number of accidents and fatalities that occur as a result of motorists having heart attacks behind the wheel.

A joint development between Ford’s European Research Centre in Aachen, Germany, and Aachen University’s Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule, which developed the contactless ECG technology, the prototype seat utilises ECG (electrocardiograph) technology that monitors the heart’s electrical impulses and detects signs of irregularity, working very much like an early warning system.

Whereas a normal ECG machine in a clinic requires metal electrodes to be attached to the skin at various points on the body, the Ford ECG seat has six built-in sensors that can detect heart activity through the driver’s clothing. Specially designed capacitive electrodes feed the body’s electrical heart impulses through complicated electronics to make the heart monitoring possible.

The system will be able to detect if someone is having a cardiovascular issue, for example a heart attack, and could also be used to detect the symptoms of other conditions such as high blood pressure or electrolyte imbalances.

In early tests, the Ford heart monitoring seat has recorded accurate readings during 98% of driving time for 95% of drivers. Ford’s research engineers are continuing to study how sensors can be made to record signals through a greater number of materials, including those that interrupt readings with their own electrical activity.

The company is also testing the prototype seat to understand how it could work with other advanced systems within Ford vehicles to warn a driver to pull over and seek medical attention, or possibly even send out an alert to emergency medical workers, if necessary.

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The mobile phone could play a key role as an interface for any future application of the technology. Connected to a system such as Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch, the Ford heart rate monitoring seat potentially could use the driver’s mobile phone to send a message to medical centres, alerting doctors to irregular heart activity. The seat could also be linked to SYNC’s Emergency Assistance function to inform emergency response teams of the driver’s heart condition before, during and after an accident.

Ford is exploring how advanced safety technologies such as Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keeping Aid, Active City Stop and Speed Limiter could work together with the heart rate monitoring seat to help protect drivers in cases where they experience heart problems.